To see a note from the editor, click here.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Coming of Kim Jong-il

Following reports by international media last week about a suspected visit by North Korean (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-il to China, Chinese state media confirmed this yesterday. An article on the website of the China Daily revealed that Kim was in the country from the 26th to the 30th of August at the invitation of Hu Jintao, with whom he held talks last Friday.

Aside from the usual state pleasantries, Hu apparently focused discussions on increasing strategic communication and economic co-operation between the DPRK and the PRC, suggesting that successful economic development comes as a result of a balance between self-dependence and favourable links with other nations. This can be seen as an effort by the Chinese President to try and urge the North Korean leadership away from Pyongyang's often confrontational and hostile foreign policy, in the hope that more favourable diplomatic relations between the DPRK and the outside world might allow for the transformation of the country's struggling economy along the lines of the Chinese 'opening up' model.

Coverage of the trip in the People's Daily highlighted several positive signals by Kim Jong-il over the continuing nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with him reiterating the DPRK's commitment to peace in the region and its willingness to work with China to achieve this. Opinion within China and without over whether these are encouraging signs or not has been divided. Ultimately, these are statements of intent rather than actual policies. Whether talks over the future of the Korean region can resume (after the alleged sinking of a South Korean ship by North Korea derailed them earlier this year) will much depend on whether the United States can find enough common ground with the DPRK, and also with Russia and China (other countries involved in the talks). With the US rigidly sticking to its backing of South Korea, the room for manoeuvre at present seems especially small. Nevertheless, the fact that the South has dropped its demand that the DPRK apologise for the sinking of its ship before it can come back to the negotiation table is a sign that there is still some desire to bring the talks to fruition.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Class Sizes

A report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) published recently has found that the size of China's middle class is now over 800 million people. ADB researchers defined 'middle class' as individuals who consumed between 2 and 20 US dollars per day, with the bracket further divided into the 'lower-middle class' (2 to 4 dollars per day), the 'middle-middle class' (4 to 10 dollars per day) and the 'upper-middle class' (10 to 20 dollars per day). Importantly, those in the lower-middle class were still liable to lapse back into poverty in times of hardship.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chinese academics have taken issue with the ADB's findings, with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences contending that the figure for China's middle class in fact stands at around 23% of China's population (roughly 300 million people). However, an important concession by the ADB made in the report is that around 40% of those encompassed in its figure of 800 million continue to belong to the 'lower-middle class' category.

What do these findings suggest about China's development? Firstly, it is important to get some perspective. As the report stresses, the limits on the upper-middle class threshold of 10 and 20 dollars are equivalent to the poverty lines of Brazil and Italy respectively. In terms of GDP, it is clear that China still has a long way to go if it is to achieve parity with other more developed nations. Therefore, at the moment, the ADB classifies countries like the People's Republic of China and India (amongst others) with the label 'developing Asia'.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Ticket to Eased Congestion

In the run up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government proceeded to ban around 50% of cars from Beijing's busy roads in an effort to reduce pollution in the city. As Reuters reported, drivers were banned on alternate days depending on whether their car's number plate ended in an odd or even digit, a move that cost city authorities around 189 million dollars in lost road and vehicle taxes. To ease congestion further, an additional 3 extra subway lines (the Olympic Branch Line, the Airport Express, and Line 10) were also added to the Beijing transport network in preparation for the extra visitor footfall, with estimates suggesting the improved subway system was able to accommodate an additional 4 million passengers each day.

While Beijing was able to generally cope with the visitor surge during the Olympics, since then the subway system has continued to get busier. With the Beijing government willing to subsidise its citizenry's travel (journeys cost Beijing residents only 2 jiao- the equivalent of about 2 British pence), using public transport is by far the cheapest option for travel in the city. Day after day, thousands of Chinese frequent the subway stations in the centre of the city and, while the experience is no worse (and perhaps better) than networks like the London Underground, at peak time overcrowding on trains can be a problem.

With this in mind, it comes as little surprise that this week an announcement by the Beijing Subway Construction and Administration Corporation detailed the opening of a new line linking Beijing's Fangshan suburb to the main subway network (as reported by Xinhua). The 25 km Fangshan Line is expected to be operational by the end of 2010, by which point the total track length of Beijing's subway network will be approximately 300 km.

This sustained investment by the city's authorities in public transport is sign that pollution remains a pressing concern for China's sprawling urban areas. With major traffic problems developing into a huge 100 km traffic jam earlier this week on one of China's main expressways, there are multiple signs that the development of the country's transport infrastructure has not kept pace with the rapidly rising number of cars on China's roads. As migration from rural to urban areas continues to swell the populations of cities like Beijing and Shanghai, further investment will be needed if traffic problems are to be prevented from becoming a major hindrance to the Chinese economy.

To find out more about Beijing's subway system, click here.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

A Question of Diplomacy

Tensions between India and China have flared after the latter refused to grant a top Indian general a visa to visit the country as part of a defence exchange programme between the two countries. According to a BBC report, Chinese authorities refused entry into the country for Lieutenant General BS Jaswal, commander of Indian forces in Kashmir. China, Pakistan and India all claim parts of Kashmir, with Beijing maintaining its long-held belief that part of the territory should be part of Tibet. As a result of China's denial of a visa, the Indian government has cancelled further defence exchanges, which included the visit of several People's Liberation Army (PLA) generals to India.

Relations between the two countries have been precariously balanced since China and India clashed in the 1962 Sino-Indian Border Conflict, in which PLA forces launched offensives over the Himalayan border into India. Against an opponent vastly superior in resources, Indian forces were unable to resist China's aggressive military tactics

The breakdown in the dialogue between the two countries caused by this dispute should be of some concern to the international community. War is obviously out of the question, and in time it is not unreasonable to expect that relations get back on their previous footing. However, this incident highlights the continued volatility of the region. In the eyes of the Chinese, the reclaiming of lost territory is still a sensitive point, and it is unlikely that China will abandon its claims to parts of Kashmir any time soon. For Beijing, what is at stake is as much about national pride as physical territory, and with China's ever-increasing power in Asia its leaders could be inclined to try and further restore this pride.

Yet, we must not forget that the India of today is vastly better equipped to deal with the Chinese threat than the India of 1962. With both sides possessing nuclear weapons and strengthened military resources, the dynamic of international relations in Asia is much different. Some economists are already looking to India rather than China as the long-term economic superpower in the continent, a prediction which makes the chance of New Delhi and Beijing coming to a head more likely. Time will tell whether such estimates are correct, but the world community should be working to try and ensure that Sino-Indian relations improve significantly in the future.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Gain and Grain

In a previous post, Sino-Gist mentioned an independent Chinese report which found that officials received 5.4 trillion yuan in 'gray income' (money gained through corruption, bribery etc.) in 2009, with the growth in levels of such income exceeding that of GDP. Since their release, the findings have caused controversy, with individuals from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) suggesting that the problem has been overstated.

While nobody would deny that corruption exists in Chinese society, NBS officials are unconvinced over the reliability of the findings in the 'Gray Income and National Income Distribution' report, which puts 'gray income' levels about 90% higher than the NBS' own estimates. According to the People's Daily, one NBS analyst wrote on the Bureau's website that “there are many flaws in the report, such as how the samples were chosen and calculations made, and the final result is significantly higher (than the actual level)”. Such 'flaws' include the fact that the independent researchers analysed only 4,909 households (7.6% of the total looked at by the NBS), and that the survey sample was hand-picked rather than being drawn randomly.

However, as Andrew Batson comments on the Wall Street Journal's 'China Real Time Report':

It’s become increasingly widely accepted among researchers that better-off Chinese people not only hide their money from the taxman, they also don’t honestly answer the survey questions that government agencies use to figure out household incomes. The clear implication is that official income figures are too low.

Thus, while some from the NBS take issue with the figure of 5.4 trillion yuan, Andrew Batson's article suggests the problems with official statistics implied in the independent report are not being dismissed out of hand. With any luck, the NBS will be able to use it to improve its own statistical surveys in the future.


According to an article from the People's Daily, Zhang Ping (head of the National Development and Reform Commission) is aiming to increase China's annual grain output to 550 million tonnes by 2020 (with the 2009 figure standing at 530.8 million tonnes). China has an approach of remaining 95% self-sufficient in its food supply. Thus, with its expected demand for grain due to rise to over 570 million tonnes by 2020, Zhang's target figure would ensure that China maintains its levels of self-sufficiency for the forseeable future.

To realise this, Zhang's report to the current session of the National People's Congress announced further investment in farming infastructure and high-yield technologies. In addition, according to Zhang, the coming years will also see improvements in the way the agricultural sector copes with environmental disasters, which are likely to become more frequent in the future.

China's aim of being 95% self-sufficient in food supply is clearly intended to secure China's position as worldwide pressure on food resources grows in the coming decades. However, with its expanding population and consumption needs, whether or not China will be able to stick to this target is doubtful. There will come a point when grain production peaks, at which time the country will need to start looking to other countries to make up an expanding shortfall. In much the same way as with the exhaustion of the Daqing oilfields in the early 1990s, China will move very quickly from a position of security to one of dependance- a situation that could add an interesting dynamic to international relations.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Two People's Republics

With the BBC today quoting South Korean media as reporting that Kim Jong-il is in the process of making an official visit to China (his second within a year), it is evident that relations between North Korea (DPRK) and the People's Republic remain on a good footing, despite the tensions caused in the Korean region by the sinking of a South Korean warship in March (for which the North has been blamed).

As usual, Chinese media looks set not to announce the visit officially until the North Korean leader has returned to Pyongyang. However, according to the Xinhua New Agency, Wu Dawei (China's special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs) landed in South Korea on Thursday, having visited the DPRK just a week earlier. These visits put together suggest a strong desire on the part of Beijing to try and stabilise the Korea 'situation' in the wake of the crisis in March. In addition, China will probably be looking to get the 6 nation talks on North Korean disarmament going again after they were scuppered earlier this year.

The reason for this is straightforward enough. The troubles in the Peninsula have placed a continual strain on US-China ties. With America committed to supporting Seoul, and with China anxious to protect the sovereignty of the DPRK (Chinese aid is vital to the survival of the country's economy), tensions between the two Koreas inevitably asks questions of the relationship between Washington and Beijing- questions that both could do without. Talks over the disarmament of the DPRK, were they to be successful, would undoubtedly ease this strain. In the context of this, China will be hoping to use Kim Jong-il's visit to its advantage.

The BBC also raised the question over whether the North Korean leader's trip may have a succession aspect to it. With Kim Jong-il rumoured to have had a stroke 2 years ago, he is reportedly looking to secure his son (Kim Jong-un) as the DPRK's next leader. As the senior communist power in Asia, China will be able to exert a large influence over proceedings once Kim Jong-il is deceased. The Supreme Leader will be hoping that China backs his preferred successor, rather than (with the aim of easing tensions between North and South) attempting to end the dominance of the Kim dynasty in North Korean politics.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Looking at the 'Little Red Book': 1

'Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung' (more commonly known as simply the 'Little Red Book') is the most recognisable physical representation of China's Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976). First published en masse on the eve of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), it soon became the established handbook for how China's youth should go about making revolution.

The 'Little Red Book' is packed with hundreds of Mao's sayings, extracts from his speeches and key ideas from his writings. Not surprisingly, a few have become synonymous with the GPCR and Maoism in general, with 'political power grows out of the barrel of a gun' perhaps being the most famous of them all. However, in each distinctive red plastic-backed copy, there are also many fascinating lesser-known quotes, which become increasingly relevant in the context of the GPCR's history. In a series of short pieces, using the first English edition of the 'Little Red Book' published in 1966, Sino-Gist will consider a few of these.

To start, the first chapter (entitled 'The Communist Party') contains a criticism from Mao of comrades who forget the CCP's general line. The quote reads:

"...If we actually forget the Party's general line and general policy, then we shall be blind, half-baked, muddle-headed revolutionaries, and when we carry out a specific line for work and a specific policy, we shall lose our bearings and vacillate now to the left and now to the right, and the work will suffer."1

In essence, Mao was warning of the dangers of Party officials not understanding the CCP's approach to socialism. In his opinion, cadres guilty of this would be unable to undertake work for the Party and concentrate on a particular idea to bring it fruition. The Cultural Revolution encompassed campaigns to root out individuals who had forgotten the Party's stand and ideology, and who were allowing the Chinese revolution to 'suffer'. Such an ambiguous (and broad) category of condemnation inevitably allowed for the removal of thousands of Party cadres on these counts.

However, this theme of being unable to 'carry out a...specific policy' could not apply to the Cultural Revolution's main targets, the 'capitalist roaders' in Chinese political life. After Mao was forced to stand-aside in the policy-making arena after his disastrous 'Great Leap Forward' initiative, more moderate elements in the CCP's leadership (led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai) instigated (in Mao's eyes) a much less 'revolutionary' programme of economic and social policy. As a result, during GPCR, Liu and Deng were accused of being the highest placed individuals in the CCP taking the 'capitalist road'- accusations that contributed to the former's death in 1969, and the latter's political annihilation until the GPCR's worst excesses were over. Although guilty of the 'crime' of betraying Mao Zedong Thought, the cases of Liu and Deng (and others) showed the fallibility in this aspect of the Maoist canon. Even if they had forgotten the CCP's general line as the Red Guards supposed, they had gone firmly down the capitalist road- a phenomenon that certainly could not been achieved by 'blind, half-baked, muddle-headed revolutionaries'.

Mao's reference to vacillating 'now to the left and now to the right' had both physical and political undertones. While in one sense it accords with the theme of 'we shall be blind...revolutionaries', the sentence can also be seen to refer to cadres oscillating between the political left and the political right. The supreme irony of the GPCR is that Mao and those around him were as guilty of doing this as those that suffered for having done so pre-1966. The politics of the Cultural Revolution started out as very radical in 1966, with the mass-action of the Red Guards and the establishment of the Shanghai Commune in 1967 (superseded by the nationwide 'revolutionary committees' in 1968). However, the arrest of Chen Boda (seen as the guiding hand for Maoist ideology) in 1970 and the death of Lin Biao (Mao's designated successor) in 1971 after allegedly mounting a failed coup against the Chairman can be interpreted as the revolutionary tide beginning to turn. Over the next 5 years up to his death, Mao swung between conservatism and radicalism, with those around him desperately trying to keep in sync with the way the wind was blowing. In 1973, Mao approved the political revival of figures like Deng Xiaoping who had been attacked in the opening years of the Cultural Revolution, only to approve a campaign attacking Deng again 3 years later. In addition, the fortunes of Mao's ultra-Maoist followers (the Gang of Four) rose and fell as Mao's attitude to their revolutionary endeavours shifted back and forth between praise and concern. Mao was as guilty of vacillating between left and right as anyone- unfortunately, this hypocrisy had disastrous consequences.
1'Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung', 1966, p. 7 ('Speech at a Conference of Cadres in the Shansi-Suiyuan Liberated Area', 1/4/1948)

The next instalment of this series will be coming soon.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Politics of Sentencing

Yesterday, Sino-Gist commented on new proposed changes to China's capital punishment laws, whereby 13 economic crimes would no longer warrant the death penalty. However, an announcement by Chinese media today of the sentencing of Zheng Shaodong (the former assistant Minister for Public Security) to death with a 2 year reprieve shows how committed the Chinese authorities remain to making a firm example of those who harm the public interest.

According to the Xi'an Intermediate People's Court, over the course of 6 years from 2001 Zheng used his various positions (including being deputy head of Guangdong's Department of Public Security from 2001 until 2005, before being promoted to assistant Minister for Public Security) to amass over 1 million US dollars in bribes. The court also found him guilty of abusing his offices.

Death sentences for top officials are not uncommon in China. Recently, in July 2010, Chen Shaoji (the head of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference in Guangdong province) was given a similar suspended capital sentence for allegedly accepting over 4 million US dollars in bribes between 1992 and 2009. Such verdicts for high profile figures serve two key purposes. Firstly, after past public complaints about the widespread corruption in Chinese political life, the Party and the state authorities use cases like Zheng Shaodong's to clearly distance themselves from this climate of unscrupulous conduct. However, as a Reuters article commented when reporting on Chen Shaoji's sentencing, actions against top officials can also be heavily influenced by politics. Indeed, Reuters suggested that Chen's arrest can be seen as part of a wider purge of the Guangdong political scene by Wang Yang, the region's party secretary (and a known ally of Hu Jintao). With a leadership change due in 2012 at the next CCP Congress, provincial Party figures like Wang Yang are (in the words of Reuters) 'jockeying for position'.

Most probably, after Zheng's two year probationary period has elapsed his sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment. However, with the Xi'an court's verdict also including the removal of all of his political rights, it seems unlikely that Zheng will be a political phoenix. Even if he still has some allies in the Party, proven charges of corruption are much harder to work around than ideological crimes. Although there may come a time when China no longer views corruption as a crime worthy of capital or life sentences, the continuing 'gray income' problem in Chinese official life makes it seem unlikely that this point will be reached anytime soon.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Changes to the Law

Amnesty International estimates that China executes more people per year than the rest of the world put together. While most death sentences are given for murder and drug-related crime, capital punishments can also be applied to a selection of economic crimes, including corruption, fraud and smuggling. For example, in 2007, the former head of China's food and drug safety watchdog (Zheng Xiaoyu) was executed for corruption amid several health scares surrounding Chinese products.

However, this might be about to change. This morning, the Xinhua News Agency reported that an amendment to China's criminal code has been submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (China's most senior legislature) for its first reading. The proposed change would remove 13 economic offences from the current list of 68 crimes punishable by death, including the smuggling of precious metals and relics, some types of financial fraud, and teaching others how to commit crime.

China has maintained the death penalty for such offences up to now for the purpose of upholding public security and stability. Although the proposed change to the state's execution policy is in line with the declining use of the death penalty across the world, numerically the effect of this amendment will be minimal. Economic criminals make up only a small fraction of the total number of people executed in China each year, and death sentences for some offences are extremely rare (for example, the last capital sentence for teaching criminal methods was issued in 1997). If the amendment were to be passed it will be a definite step in the right direction, but further reform to the criminal law will be needed for rates of execution in China to drop significantly.

This current session of the Standing Committee of the NPC is also considering several other important additions to the law. These include the safeguarding of aspects of China's national cultural heritage, the criminalising of drink driving and making employers criminally responsible for defaulting on their employees' wages. As these are all only receiving their initial reading, it remains to be seen whether they will be passed into law or not.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Weight of History

Since Japan's invasion of northern China in 1931, in which it ignored League of Nations directives and illegally annexed the province of Manchuria, the Chinese attitude to Japan has often been one of intense suspicion. Although after the founding of the PRC Sino-Japanese relations improved significantly (the latter's military capabilities were severely reduced after World War Two), China has never been able to let go of its suspicions of Japanese intentions in Asia. And it is right to remain wary. Japanese written accounts of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) downplay the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1937 Nanking Massacre, and in recent years Japanese government ministers have caused controversy by visiting the Yasakuni Shrine- a memorial to the nation's war victims that includes known war criminals.

With this background in mind, the last week has been of importance to Japan's relationship with China, and indeed with other Asian nations. With last Sunday being the 65th anniversary of Japan's unconditional surrender, Japanese government ministers were involved in memorial ceremonies to the 3 million Japanese who died in the Second World War. However, as was noted approvingly in Chinese state media, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet refrained from visiting the Yasakuni Shrine, and the government also issued an apology to Asia's nations for the country's past aggression.

This does not mean that all has been forgiven.  Friday saw the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) issue a call for Japan to apologise for its past crimes against the Korean people, particularly the 1910 Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty. There is also an outstanding discussion over whether Japan should pay further financial reparations for its past aggression in Asia, a debate that rages within Japan as well as within the wider Asian community.

For China, finding a narrative of the history of the first half of the 20th century that is both representative of the crimes committed by Japanese forces and that is accepted by both sides is still a primary concern. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is currently involved in a research project with Japanese scholars to complete a joint account of Sino-Japanese history, in the hope of strengthening bilateral ties. However, CASS academics suggested at the completion of the first phase of research in February 2010 that there remains a tendency amongst some parts of Japanese society to deny Japan's aggressive role in World War Two. Although the project is a major step towards both sides finding common ground on such a complicated issue, it seems unlikely that Japan's past actions will cease to be a point of diplomatic friction any time soon. While the CCP continues to use China's astonishing transformation from 'the sick man of Asia' to economic giant to bolster its own image, history will stay high on the diplomatic agenda.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Success in Shenzhen

This year will see the anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the first one of its kind to be created under Deng Xiaoping's economic 'opening up' policy in 1980. Today, the five Chinese SEZs- the cities of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen; and the province of Hainan- enjoy more flexibility in their economic policy-making, making them more attractive areas in which to do business than the rest of the PRC. Tellingly, Shenzhen, Zhutai and Shantou are all located on the coast of southern China's Guangdong province, where trade by sea is the area's economic backbone.

The SEZ experiment in Shenzhen has been hugely successful for the government, and is often cited to justify the decision to implement economic reform after the restrictive policies of the Maoist era. Since 1980, the area has received billions of dollars of foreign investment, and is now the second biggest port in China after Shanghai, handling over 100 million tons of cargo in the first half of 2010 (an increase of around 22% on 2009 levels).

China's new economic approach is often interpreted as a sign that the CCP has abandoned the path of socialist development in favour of creating a wealthy and sophisticated Chinese nation. However, when observed within the perspective of Marxist theory, policies like creating the SEZs and Coastal Development Areas (e.g. Shanghai) can be seen as China attempting to set itself back on the straight and narrow after the failed Maoist jump straight from the feudal to socialist stage of development. Chairman Mao believed that Chinese society did not need to pass through an era of capitalist prosperity before realising the socialist society. Luckily for China, his successors in the CCP have long since abandoned the Maoist notion and have returned to more orthodox Marxist economics. In this way, CCP policy-makers are still able to talk about the Chinese road to socialism, while at the same time instigating distinctly capitalist economic measures.

Of course, once Marx's capitalist 'foundation' has been established (if this can ever be determined), whether or not the CCP will be willing to take another adventure down the socialist road is a question of ideological loyalty versus the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' mentality. As China continues its seemingly relentless march towards being the world's biggest economic superpower, it will take serious commitment to the socialist cause for the CCP's leadership to risk a comfortable economic position in the pursuit of the Marxist dream. More likely than not, the Party will look to find a new way to rationalise the practical with the theoretical.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Overtures Towards Openness

At a meeting of the Politburo on Friday 20th August (today), a document was passed instructing local Chinese Communist Party branches to be more open to Party members. This instruction will numerically have far reaching effects- as of the end of 2009, the CCP had in excess of 78 million members to its name, with over 3.5 million 'grassroots' branches and committees. In terms of categories of membership, farmers and fisherman accounted for just over 24 million members, and technical and professional personnel for another 17 million. This resolution by the Politburo is seen as a way of implementing the Party's 'Scientific Outlook on Development' programme launched in 2003, aimed (in the words of Hu Jintao) at “putting people first”.

Such an emphasis on increased openness has two primary aims- to counter corruption at the grassroots level, and to boost participation by ordinary members of the CCP in local affairs. While the Party has always claimed to serve the people, since the 1950s it has been plagued by the development of a class of party bureaucrats operating at sub-national levels of administration. This has inevitably seen the marginalisation of ordinary Chinese citizens from the workings of power, and a shift in emphasis away from the revolutionary classes to middle-managers and bureaucrats.

Chairman Mao recognised this phenomena in the early stages of the People's Republic's history, with movements like the 'Three-anti Campaign' of 1951 and the 1963 Socialist Education Movement both aimed at clamping down on bureaucracy. The Maoist concern over the Party 'losing touch' with ordinary Chinese culminated in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in which the Party and state apparatuses from the top downwards were violently purged of supposedly right-wing elements. This dramatic bid to re-ignite the CCP with a sense of revolutionary duty to China's peasants and proletarians was to all intents and purposes a dismal failure. Rather than bridging the gap between the Party and the people, the Cultural Revolution served to only destroy the CCP's ideological infallibility, and led to many 'crises of faith' in the Leninist notion of the vanguard party amongst the grassroots membership.

Following revelations this week over the rampant corruption still present in China's various tiers of administration, this attempt to boost accountability and political openness at the local level has the potential to yield positive results. However, the core reason why corruption exists is also the key hindrance to efforts to tackle the problem. As is to be expected of a country the size of China, the centre's control extends only so far. While ordinary citizens are able to take their complaints to Beijing (as happened with the 2008 Sanlu milk scandal), mediation of every local government transaction is of course impossible. Ultimately, China is too big to be governed effectively from Beijing, so trust is placed in subsequent layers of officials to manage the affairs of provinces, counties and villages. It is at these levels that corruption is most prevalent, and there is no incentive for local Party branch leaders to implement the Politburo's instructions. While this remains the case, it will be 'business as usual' at the grassroots level.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

An Ongoing Problem

Since yesterday, the People's Daily has continued to defend China's international image in the face of the Pentagon report critical of its military capabilities. Running an article from a subsidiary publication, the newspaper suggested a mentality existed in Washington which could end up with a war being “forced” on China.

It is clear that Beijing is not going to let the snub go readily. Although talk of war is rather sensationalising the issue, recent events have revealed China's continuing antagonism over America's selling of military equipment to Taiwan. Wary of being drawn into an unwanted conflict and keen to avoid another Taiwan Straits Crisis, in recent years the United States has significantly reduced its commitment to Taiwan. However, much to Beijing's annoyance, the Taiwan Relations Act remains on the US statute book, and the Pentagon's findings make this likely to remain the status quo for the coming years.

Nevertheless, there is nothing to make China's reaction to this year's report exceptional. Since 2000, the Pentagon has issued such analyses of China's military technologies and intentions each year, and a look at the People's Daily's reaction to the publication of the Pentagon's verdict in 2009 gives a striking sense of deja vu. Last year, as with 2010, America was accused of distorting facts and making vague or groundless claims. The mutual distrust between Washington and Beijing is nothing new, but as the years go by it is not encouraging to see criticisms and counter-criticisms being repeated. It will take a dramatic change in cross-strait and Sino-American relations for this pattern not to continue in 2011.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

International Identities

News on Monday that China has surpassed Japan as the world's second biggest economy is yet another demonstration of the former's relentless march towards the status of 'superpower'.  With the USA now in its sights, steady relations between Washington and Beijing are now ever more important in the context of world economic and political affairs.

However, despite a steady improvement in the Sino-American dialogue in recent years, especially with regards to America's stance on the Taiwan 'issue', feelings have flared in Beijing after the publication of a Pentagon report critical of China's military and cyber capabilities. Commenting on what Chinese experts perceive to be unjustified American references to China's alleged cyber technology threat, the People's Daily (the Chinese state mouthpiece) published views which suggest that America is trying to “blacken China's image”. In the article, an intellectual from the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences attributed the Pentagon's findings to a need for America to exacerbate the Chinese danger in order to boost its own cyber power. Such mutual suspicion, when added to Chinese offence taken over American concern with its military development, makes it likely that each side's mistrust of the other will only intensify.

The American report comes at a particularly frustrating time for the Chinese government. Following on from the efforts made in the 2008 Olympics to portray a China with a new 'international' role, the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is another exercise in image improvement. While on one level tarnishing China's newly carved out identity, on another the Pentagon's report serves to show that the international community has not been inclined to abandon its pre-existing suspicions. Undoubtedly, the Olympics and the Expo altered many foreign perceptions of China, but these are still infused with the notion that China could be a potential threat. Unfortunately for Beijing, these attitudes are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Commemoration and Irony

The post-Mao generations of leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have wrestled with a continuous problem- how to treat the memory of the man who engineered the Party's own near destruction during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The '70 percent good, 30 percent bad' official judgement on Mao serves to dispel any further public debate on his period in power and his legacy, but clearly one size does not fit all. As well as this quantitative verdict, the most obvious visual reminder of the Chairman's vital role in the history of modern China and the Party is his huge portrait affixed to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking Tiananmen Square. As well as gazing down upon the crowds of Chinese and foreign visitors who throng Tiananmen every day, the portrait looks out towards the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall on the opposite side of the Square

Akin to the example of Lenin in Russia, the fact that the Hall exists at all demonstrates the vitality of Mao Zedong Thought to the CCP's own mandate to rule in China. With Mao's life and political philosophy so closely interwoven with that of the CCP's, the post-Mao generations of leaders have had little choice but to keep the Party closely aligned with Maoism, while at the same time introducing elements of the thought of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao into the political equation. In effect, the Hall also serves as a way for the Party to control remnants of the 'cult' of Mao that climaxed during the Cultural Revolution era. Year by year, hundreds of thousands of Chinese pay their respects to the Great Helmsman, laying flowers purchased during the long wait in the queue to see Mao's body or bowing respectfully in the Solemn Hall of Last Respects. Through such regimented commemoration, the Party is able to make Mao's hallowed status work to its advantage, something that was not possible during the second half of the 1960s.

As well as observing outpourings of respect, the western visitor to the Memorial Hall with even a limited knowledge of modern Chinese history can easily be struck by a sense of irony. The English language official leaflet purchased for two Yuan in the queue to get into the building states that “[the Hall] is a place that the people of all China's ethnic groups wish to visit”. Yet, those wishing to see Mao's body must pass through numerous security checkpoints seemingly intended less to counter a possible threat from a foreign visitor, and more to guard against the actions of a Chinese national. Whatever the CPC may like to suggest publicly, this is a clear acknowledgement by the Party that within China itself Mao is far from universally admired.

In addition, the same leaflet draws attention to the fact that, along with Mao's body, the Memorial Hall houses memorial chambers to “six great revolutionaries”- Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun (as well as the Chairman himself). The implied sense of revolutionary unity between these individuals (backed up by a picture of the six having a “friendly conversation” in 1962) masks the true reality: that the six had differing opinions on the nature of China's socialist development. Not surprisingly, the fact that Mao's five fellow revolutionaries were all caught up in the political and social turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (albeit to vastly varying degrees) is also omitted from the literature.

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall represents a fascinating example of a way in which a state can try to come to terms with the controversial legacy of a former leader. While the very nature of the building's set-up suggests a continued feeling of uncertainty in the higher echelons of the CCP over how Mao (and his revolutionary comrades) should be remembered, there can be no doubt that, 34 years after his death, Mao and his Thought remains of paramount importance to Chinese socialism. Although such ideology has been combined with the theory of other important Chinese Communists, the Party's legitimacy relies on the validity of Mao Zedong Thought and the Maoist era. While this is still the status quo, the Great Helmsman's face will continue to stare across Tiananmen Square towards his own mausoleum.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

A helpful reminder...

On Thursday 12th August, the Xinhua New Agency reported comments written by Jia Qinglin (Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) calling on non-Party political figures to back the Communist Party's “socialist core values system” for the development of Chinese socialism.

Formulated in 2006 at the 16th Central Committee's 6th Plenum, the system consists of (in the words of Xinhua) “Marxism, socialism with Chinese characteristics, patriotism, the spirit of reform and innovation and the socialist sense of honor and disgrace.” Beijing's need to re-iterate these core values of its political ideology, especially at a time when relations with China's other legal political parties seem to be good (as shown by the recent celebrations of the Chinese Peasant's and Worker's Democratic Party's 80th anniversary in the Great Hall of the People), suggests a sense of growing uneasiness amongst the CCP's top leadership. As with the Imperial dynasties that preceded it, natural disasters pose a major challenge to the government's levels of popular support. With the ongoing flooding across China, particularly in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, and the awful aftermath of these events, Jia Qinglin's remarks may be intended to serve as a reminder to the Chinese political landscape that the CCP remains the guiding hand for China's development in effect reaffirming its control. This is not to suggest that the Party is looking down the barrel of revolt against its rule, but governments often look at their weakest during times of environmental crisis. Certainly, the recent events in Pakistan demonstrate this.

Interestingly, the theme of the 'socialist sense of honor and disgrace' has been seen in the past week with several reports around corruption in official Chinese state media. After the People's Daily Online (English edition) featured findings that officials had received 5.4 trillion yuan in 'gray income' in 2009, with such income between 2005 and 2008 growing faster than China's Gross Domestic Product, this week saw He Guoqiang (China's anti-corruption chief) and Li Changchun speak out against corruption. Li Changchun also backed 'The Final Struggle', a new theatre play with a distinct anti-corruption message.

Of course, these latest in a long line of anti-corruption messages from the centre are not going to solve China's problem overnight. In a country as big as China, the inevitability of widespread corruption seems almost guaranteed. Since 1949, the many layers of government at the local, county and provincial levels has led to a proliferation of middle-men and, despite its reputation of ruling with a strong dictatorial fist, the CCP's reach only extends so far. In this sense, it is hard to see how China's great corruption 'issue' will be resolved. Whether it needs to be resolved is an altogether different argument.

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